A recap of my worst job interview, at Zalando

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For the majority of us, an unfortunate complication of being alive is that we have to take on jobs to afford the housing and nourishment that allows us to maintain that state. As a result we have to go on job interviews, which can be grueling experiences when you’re dealing with the wrong interviewer or come in under-prepared. Although not all of my interviews turned into jobs, I can say I’m mostly lacking in poor experiences. One however does stand out: my 2014 job interview at Zalando, in Berlin.

Just to give you some background, at that point I had been working in online marketing for over a year, being part of the marketing team at a startup based in Shanghai. It wasn’t the best experience, and if you want to learn why working for a startup can suck then feel free to read that article as well/instead. I had gotten sick of the city and the country, and began to focus on finding a way back to Europe.

The city I wanted to move to was Berlin, so when I took some time off from work to visit family in Europe, I also set up a few interviews in Berlin. My time in the city was limited: I was going to be there for 3 days, visiting friends and doing 3 interviews at 3 different startups.

Although Zalando was on my radar to work at, the job I was interviewing for interessed me the least. What they were looking for was a junior marketing analyst, and I’m not the biggest on setting up tracking and analyzing data on a daily basis. That said, I do enjoy working with it on a less intense basis (I can’t confirm or deny that I added that part because some of my current co-workers might stumble upon this article.). I was more interested in a job as project manager for a smaller startup, and when that company wanted to set up a second interview after the first one went well I decided to focus on this, instead of the Zalando one that was planned for the same day.

When I came in for the interview at Zalando, everything started off quite well. The offices looked nice and lively, and it’s always nice to be able to grab something to drink as you wait. That may make me sound like a battered child, but in Shanghai I would feel lucky if the toilet seat hadn’t been knocked off in the bathrooms. For the interview there were two people in the room. One of them was a senior member of the analyst team, the other one a blank space in my mind at this point.

I told them about my previous experience and could tell I had a shot at landing the job. This was a junior position in a company with a high turn-over rate. They needed someone with some relevant experience quick, not an expert. Things were going well, until they asked me: “what do you know about Zalando, and why do you want to work here?“.

Now I was quite unprepared, but I still felt super confident about answering this question. I told them how my company in Shanghai was also focused on retail, and how the marketing manager was inspired by Zalando’s approach to corporate culture. They seemed to like this. I then told them he had gone so far with this that he had recommended all of his employees to read the book written by Zalando’s CEO. I told them I had done so as well, loved the company’s philosophy, and would love to work for the company that has had such an effect on startups all over the world.

Then I asked them a few questions, and left the interview confidently. I was convinced that even if my other interviews wouldn’t amount to anything, I would at least be able to move to Berlin to join Zalando. I then received an offer for from the smaller startup, accepted it, and moved to Berlin.

Some months passed, and I started thinking back on my Zalando experience. I found it very odd that I had never heard back from them. Even if they had gone with someone with more experience as an analyst, I thought I did well enough to at least get a rejection email. I brought up with some of my co-workers, and they seemed confused by my story. “What Zalando book are you talking about?”, they asked me.

It then hit me. The book I had mentioned in my interview as inspiring, and the key to me wanting to join Zalando, had not been written by anyone from Zalando. How could it have been, since it wasn’t a book about Zalando. The book I had described was Tony Hseih’s Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. He was not the CEO of Zalando, he was the CEO of Zappos. To make matters worse: Zalando is notorious for being a Zappos ripoff. I had not only mixed up companies, I had also inadvertently called out Zalando for being an empty copy of Zappos, without any values to call their own.

I still think about this interview occasionally, and am so grateful no one in the interview pointed out my mistake. Thank you for that, random analyst people from Zalando.

Is there a lesson here? Sure: read up on the company you’re applying at. Or don’t apply for jobs you’re not interested in. (Unless you’re really, really desperate.)

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